Ever been approached by a member of the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ)? How soft-spoken and friendly they sound. So much so that even if you disagree with their overly ritualistic interpretation of the faith, you can’t help but listen to them before (politely) excusing yourself.
However, recently when a TV anchor did a show on the leader of this Islamic evangelical movement, Tariq Jamil, and criticised some of his ways, the anchor was bombarded with the kind of unhinged comments (on social media) that are usually associated with the notorious ‘PTI trolls’.
Crude, crass, abusive and entirely reactionary. One was surprised at how easily the veneer of gentility that usually defines the personalities of TJ members and of their supporters rubs off at the first sign of criticism.
The attacks on the (liberal) anchor were so rapid and abusive that it even made the anchor’s (more conservative) companion on the show Tweet that ‘Tariq Jamil is no prophet that he cannot be criticised’.
Late last year, the former Interior Minister Rehman Malik had also come down hard on the TJ, claiming that the evangelical movement had become a breeding ground for extremists. His statement understandably ruffled quite a few feathers, especially from within parties like the moderate-right PML-N and the Islamic JUI-F.
PML-N’s Sharif brothers have had close links with the TJ, and the JUI-F follows the Sunni Deobandi school of thought that the TJ too adheres to.
Also, quite a large number of TJ members are from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the province from where the JUI-F draws the bulk of its electoral support.
For long the TJ has been viewed as a benign movement that distances itself from mainstream politics and militancy, focusing instead on propagating ‘correct’ Islamic rites and attire, and ritualistic paraphernalia in tune with the Deobandi line of thinking.
The TJ was formed in the late 1920s to supposedly ‘cleanse Islam from Hindu and Sikh influences’ in the subcontinent.
However, after Pakistan’s creation in 1947 the TJ was more successful in attracting positive attention from Pakistanis living abroad than from those living in the country.
Based in Raiwind in the Punjab, the TJ membership and appeal, however, got a two-fold boost after the arrival of the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship in 1977.
This was the time when Zia used a part of CIA and Arab funds (dished out for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen insurgency in Afghanistan) on constructing a number of indoctrination centres in the shape of seminaries. The rise in the TJ’s fortunes was thus a product of the proliferation of the more puritanical strands of Islam during the Zia regime.
By the late 1980s, the TJ became successful in also attracting membership from the country’s trader classes, especially in the Punjab and KP. In the 1990s it began attracting the interest of certain prominent sections of Pakistan’s affluent middle-classes, including certain pop musicians, TV actors and eventually cricketers.
Throughout the (Sunni-Shia) sectarian turmoil that the country faced in the 1980s and 1990s, the TJ however, remained free to preach and recruit. It was always believed to be a harmless movement that had no political, sectarian or militant motives.
However, since the country’s Sunni majority remains ‘Barelvi’, a parallel evangelical movement emerged in the 1980s. ‘Barelvi Islam’ emerged in the 19th century India as a Sunni Muslim infusion concocted from elements of Sufism and ‘folk-Islam’. It is opposed to the Deobandi branch of South Asian Islam and both the Sunni sub-sects have been embroiled in vicious polemical battles for over 150 years.
Called the Dawat-i-Islami, the new evangelical movement claims to represent the Barelvi majority’s spiritual interests. Also seen as non-political, the Dawat, however, has been accused of containing members that have graduated to becoming members of some Barelvi militant organisations.
The guard who shot dead Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer (for ‘blasphemy’) in 2011 was also a former member of the Dawat.
On the other end, when Rehman Malik spoke about the TJ it was the first time a member of a sitting government in Pakistan had accused the outfit of breeding possible recruits for various hard-core Islamist organisations.
Alarms in this respect were first raised by some western observers when in the mid and late 1990s, the former chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, Lt Gen Javed Nasir, became a staunch member of the TJ. This was also the time the TJ was making in-roads into the Pakistan army.
Though known for his staunch Islamist views, Lt Gen Nasir’s entry into TJ’s fold was seen as being only incidental and the TJ continued to recruit and preach freely.
But the accusations (though suppressed in Pakistan) kept coming. The TJ’s name came up in connection with terrorism plots, such as in October 2002 in the US (the Portland Seven case) and the September 2002 Lackawanna Six case (also in the US).The TJ was mentioned again in the August 2006 in a plot to bomb airliners en route from London to the United States, and in the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005.
However, TJ as an organisation was not directly accused in any of the cases because most of the accused men were said to be members of various violent Islamist organisations. TJ’s name only came up when the accused were also said to have been a part of the TJ at some point before their final radicalisation and entry into more militant and radical outfits.
In 2008, the Spanish police arrested 14 Asian Muslims for allegedly planning to attack various places in Spain. Twelve were Pakistanis. A Spanish Muslim leader claimed that all of these men had once been members of the TJ. Though counter-terrorism experts have understandably focused their studies more on the militant groups, in the last five years or so, many of them have now begun to also study the dynamics of evangelical groups like the TJ.
They believe that in spite of the fact that TJ’s primary function remains to be non-political and almost entirely evangelical, its rather secretive organisational structure and the goodwill that it enjoys among most Pakistanis allows elements from extremist organisations to use TJ as a recruiting ground for more violent purposes. They say that most young men joining the TJ are more vulnerable to the Islamists’ propaganda due to the TJ’s conservative social orientation.
Rehman Malik was not shooting in the air. He was merely pointing out yet another area of concern in a country being torn apart by men committing violence in the name of faith. His statement only became controversial because very few Pakistanis are aware of the potential of the TJ unwittingly allowing the polluting of its pond with rotten fish.